For 14 weeks this summer, 17 teenagers bypassed sleeping late to show up in a classroom at Carnegie Mellon University. They came on campus at 9 a.m. for five days a week to learn their way around the World Wide Web and get grounded in the basics of computer science. The 7-year-old summer camp, called InfoLink 100, is part of the tutoring and mentoring provided by 100 Black Men of Western Pennsylvania, a professional men’s civic organization.
The learning is supported by Carnegie Mellon and Highmark and is a free effort to boost the computer skills of inner-city African-American children. Studies show this demographic lags behind the cyber-learning curve of their suburban counterparts. “We’re in the computer age, so this gives them a big dose of it,” said Ron Lawrence, newly elected president of 100 Black Men of Western Pennsylvania. “This is preparation for secondary education. preparation for real life.”
When it comes to the ability to create and invent on the computer, education experts and social scientists say black children are in a cyber ghetto because they are far less likely than white students to use computers at home, on jobs or in school. As a consequence, they have far fewer computer-related skills and a diminished likelihood for income parity, according to the Chronicle of Blacks in Higher Education.
At Carnegie Mellon, InfoLink 100 plugs low-income youth into programs that emphasize information technology. The students spend 10 weeks in class and four weeks applying their newly honed computer savvy in Downtown businesses. When Mr. Lawrence talks about the digital divide he sounds like a man on a mission, sharing his hopes on how matters must be turned around. “This is serious,” he said. “At some point, there has to be some action, so this is why we’re involved with this program.”
Across the nation, 100 Black Men of America chapters have launched computer literacy training that targets young black men. The group 100 Black Men of Western Pennsylvania took root 21 years ago, joining a global brotherhood of 110 chapters of men who have pledged to roll up their sleeves to make a difference in their local communities. All volunteers, about 25 men belong to the Pittsburgh chapter; they are teachers, principals, engineers and health professionals.
The chapter provides mentoring at the Hill House every second Saturday of the month. Half of the charges are female and the other half, male. Many come from families who want the best for their children, but are challenged because they are raised without fathers, earn low wages, and struggle with low achievement and high drop-out rates.
The group is independent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, but draws many of the young people it works with from school referrals of students who are at-risk. The challenges are so serious that six 100 Black Men chapters have created charter schools to deal with low achievement and identity issues, said Mr. Lawrence, a director of transit marketing for Bombardier, whose job takes him frequently to the Middle East. A public school graduate, Mr. Lawrence, 61, grew up in Mississippi. He wants to re-create for the students the world he grew up in, where the teachers were nurturing and encouraging. At the Hill House, the group’s Saturday mentoring classes are small. The goal is to help youths become well rounded. They teach them networking techniques, health and wellness, economic development and proper etiquette, and hold them to an acceptable dress code.
In learning to deal with peer pressure, fractured families and sexual responsibility, the toughest lesson is teaching the children that not everybody is out to get them, said Wayne Walters, a principal at Frick International Studies Academy, who is a member of 100 Black Men. Mr. Walters, in his crisply pressed pants, frequently peers into the Carnegie Mellon computer lab to check on the students. “Teaching them self responsibility is important. They have to learn they have a part to play in their success by speaking well and having the right approach is necessary,” he said.
On a recent Monday morning, ithe students were taken through their lessons by Kerry Allen, an alumni of 100 Black Men. Mr. Allen, 20, studied at Point Park University and now designs Web pages and works at the Hill House teaching computer use. Above the hum of computers and the steady click-click of the mouse, Mr. Allen, in his smooth voice, steers the students through a conversation on polygon options, MS Access and MS Frontpage. One of the students hunkered over a computer is Nate Parker, 14, who will be a freshman at Allderdice High School.
Nate began selling “candy and stuff” in the sixth grade and was bitten by the entrepreneur bug. He now wants to own a clothing store. “Kerry is a good teacher,” said Nate. “I know the stuff he’s teaching me will make getting a job easier and will make my life better.”